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In 1843 America’s Congress almost voted against adopting Samuel Morse’s Code

Posted in America, Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Language on Thursday, 16 January 2014

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This edited article about Morse Code first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 515 published on 27 November 1971.

Samuel Morse, picture, image, illustration

Samuel Morse in later life

The passengers aboard the sailing ship Sully, on their way from Le Havre to New York, were puzzled by the behaviour of a poor but popular artist who had done likenesses of them in his sketch-book.

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, 41-year-old Samuel Morse was no longer to be seen in the dining-room, or working at his pictures on deck. Instead he had locked himself in his cabin, and the only person who had access to him was the steward who brought him his meals.

He refused to answer any other knocks on his door, and was quite rude when people shouted through the panels, asking what he was doing. “Go away!” he cried. “I am working on something completely different. An invention which one day might save your lives!”

Discuss it as they might, his former friends could not imagine what this invention could possibly be. The last conversation they remembered having with him had been about safety at sea; and how invaluable it would be if there was a speedy and simple way of letting those on land know that a ship was in distress.

His invention could be concerned with that. But Morse was an artist and art teacher – not a man of science. Besides which there was little in the year 1832 to suggest that messages could be sent hundreds of miles across water. Telegraphic devices in England and France had not been greeted with widespread encouragement, and were too unreliable and costly for everyday or even emergency use.

As the month-long voyage drew to its end, the mystery was no nearer a solution. It was not until the last week of October, as the vessel entered New York Harbour, that Morse finally emerged from his cabin. He went straight to see the ship’s master, Captain David Pell, and said to him:

“I must apologize for having appeared so unsociable and discourteous. The fact is I have been drawing an electric telegraph which is going to prove a boon to mankind – a real life-saver. Remember when it is put into use that it was invented in a cabin on your ship!”

So Morse hurried ashore clutching his sketch-book and determined to be the first man to send information and calls for help across the entire Atlantic Ocean if necessary.

Since the death of his wife a few months earlier, he had travelled throughout the galleries and churches of Europe in an effort to ease the pain in his heart. Now he was back again in his native land, and the first thing he had to do was find a job and somewhere to live.

Through the help of some old colleagues and friends, he was employed as an art teacher at New York University. At night, when the lectures were over, he strove to perfect his model electric telegraph which “wrote out” messages by means of an electro-magnet, a battery, some wire, and a pencil stub.

The slanting strokes the pencil made could only be sent and received over distances of a very few feet. The whole process was extremely primitive, and for the next five years Morse endeavoured to solve the problem of relaying messages from, say, New York to Boston.

At the beginning of 1837 he was fortunate enough to meet a young student called Alfred Vail, who became fascinated by Morse’s work. With money advanced by Vail’s wealthy father, and with the inventive talent of the young man himself, the two partners produced a telegraph machine capable of sending a message across the University Hall.

The entire teaching and student body assembled in the Hall to watch the experiment as Morse tapped on the key of the transmitter, and sent a message by wire to the pencil attached to the receiving apparatus.

The message was short and simple and read: “Successful Experiment With Telegraph September 4, 1837.”

Encouraging though this was, Morse realized that the use of a pencil stub was not at all satisfactory. Something much simpler and less liable to wear out was called for. He thought deeply about this, and the solution came to him a few weeks later while reading an evening newspaper.

This gave him the idea of replacing the letters and pencil strokes with a series of dots and dashes – one dot for “e”, a single dash for “t”, a dot and a dash for “a”, and so on throughout the alphabet.

The following year the Morse Code, as he and Vail named it, was ready to be demonstrated in public. The then President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, met the two inventors in Washington, when a number of dot-and-dash signals were transmitted by cable over a record distance of ten miles.

Morse followed this up by sending messages over the forty miles from Washington to Baltimore, and it seemed as if telegraphy and the Morse Code would be adopted by America and the other advanced countries of the world.

But to Morse’s surprise and alarm, the United States postal authorities were strongly opposed to his new means of communication. They felt that the use of the telegraphic code would mean an end to their profitable express mail service, and the battle of Morse versus mail raged from 1838 until March 1843.

By then the controversy had been put before Congress, and a special Bill was proposed for the nationwide adoption of the code. Morse himself told the assembled Congressmen that if the Bill was not passed, they would not hear from him again.

“I shall return to my easel and brushes,” he said. “At least there is a demand for pictures and portraits. As far as I am concerned, the telegraph will then be dead.”

Despite this threat, there was still considerable doubt about the true value of his system. On 3rd March Congress sat all night to discuss the matter and Morse, feeling that his case and cause were already lost, caught an early morning train home to New York.

He spent the last of his money on the fare, and it was not until that evening that he learnt how Congress had voted. It had been a close thing – 89 votes to 83. But the majority of six was in favour of Samuel Morse and his now famous code!

From then on the inventor enjoyed the experience of seeing telegraphy crackle its way around the world. His code was used to save countless lives at sea, as operators tapped out the three letters SOS (or three dots, three dashes, three dots).

It lives on today to span space and save lives.

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